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August 9th, 2008
12:20 PM ET

Two Brothers, Two Paths: Shades of Race

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET


We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

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Editor's Note: Michael Eric Dyson is a University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, and author of 16 books, including the New York Times bestseller, "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How it Changed America."

Michael Eric Dyson
University Professor of Sociology, Georgetown University

As a black man who is also a professor, preacher, media commentator and author, I routinely write and talk about issues that affect the entire black community, from class warfare to the debate over hip hop. Although I write from as balanced and scholarly a perspective as possible, there’s no denying that often the subject hits home quite closely. Sometimes, it’s not merely academic.

For instance, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the prison industrial complex. I can’t deny that my brother Everett’s condition of being locked away for life, for a murder I believe he didn’t commit, fuels my determination to see black men treated more justly and to see the criminal justice system reformed. When I visit him, and see this intelligent and gentle soul corralled like an animal, it hurts. And I don’t view him, or other men who’ve made destructive choices in their lives, through rose tinted shades. I understand the harm and pain wreaked on their families and communities by black men who choose to live beyond the law. But I also understand that persistent racial discrimination often colors how we negatively perceive black men who make mistakes, while offering far more chances to white men who err.

Often, when I visit Everett in prison, I am flooded with memories of our childhood as we came of age in Detroit’s inner city in the sixties and seventies. I think of the great soul music we listened to, the barbecues we attended, the block parties we participated in, the lessons in Sunday School, the preaching we heard, our parent’s love and protection, the go-carts our father made for us, Everett working on cars and me entering oratorical contests – two black boys, among a brood of five boys, enjoying the pleasures, and enduring the limits, of living for the city. Detroit was dubbed the murder capital of the world in our youth, and we saw our fair share of violence. We eventually took different paths – Everett became a Marine, and then a drug-dealer, and I became a teen father, lived on welfare and eventually went to college and got a Ph.D. from Princeton.

Still, I’m not seduced by the notion that I made superior choices because I was a better person. I believe that Everett is an extremely smart young man who got caught in a world of trouble – yes, by his own hand, with an assist from a society that often viewed young black males as disposable and unimportant – but who could, if given the opportunity, direct his considerable gifts to making our world more enlightened about the plight of poor, struggling black males. That’s my hope as I work diligently to free him from prison so that he can come back to society with a renewed will to offer his talent in service of our people and nation.

There are other occasions when my work has been more than academic. For instance, in my debate with comedian Bill Cosby about poor blacks and whether they’re taking responsibility for their lives, I didn’t simply disagree with the often harsh tone and condescending approach he adopted when speaking of the black poor. I chafed at the demeaning and unfair characterizations of the poor people I knew when I was in the ranks of the poor myself. Now don’t get me wrong: only a fool or a dishonest person would deny that everybody, including the poor, ought to be responsible for themselves and for how they act in the world. But we must not only demand responsibility of the poor; we must also discuss our responsibility to the poor.

Cosby and others think that if only the poor were willing to work harder, act better, get educated, stay out of jail and parent more effectively, their problems would go away. It’s hard to argue with any of that, but one could do all of this and still be in bad shape at home, work or school.

For instance, in our economy where low-skilled work is all but gone, all the right behavior in the world won’t create better jobs for the poor. And personal responsibility can’t lower the unemployment rate. The 8.9 percent black unemployment rate is twice that of whites. For black men, the unemployment rate is even higher at 9.5 percent, compared to 4 percent for white men. The median weekly income of black men 16 and over who worked full-time was seventy-eight percent of white men’s income. Plus, the minimum wage has plummeted nearly 35 percent since 1968. So even though most of the poor are working, they’re not getting fairly paid.
Personal responsibility alone can’t fix that, but our social responsibility to the poor can.

Martin Luther King said that when our society places “the responsibility on its system, not on the individual, and guarantees secure employment or guaranteed income, dignity will come within the reach of all.” King believed that the obsession with personal responsibility for the poor was wrong because it let society off the hook. And blasting the poor is misled. “We do much too little to assure decent, secure employment,” King said. “And then we castigate the unemployed and underemployed for being misfits and ne’er-do-wells. We still assume that unemployment usually results from personal defects; our solutions therefore largely tend to be personal and individual.” Instead, we need to look at “the causes and cures of the economic misfortunes” of the poor and seek to “establish income security.”

For those who say, “Just get a good education and you’ll get a good job,” things aren’t quite that easy. Seventy percent of black students in the nation attend schools in inner cities that are composed largely of minority students. These schools are often located in poor neighborhoods with far fewer resources and a lower tax-base than suburban schools. And the education that poor kids get shows. Personal responsibility alone can’t fix poor neighborhoods or lousy schools, but social responsibility should prompt us to argue for greater resources educational parity.

It doesn’t take a bunch of money to love your kids and pay attention to them. But if you’re working two jobs with no benefits, taking time off to attend a conference with teachers may cost you precious resources – or even one of those jobs. It’s hard enough to parent with ample resources; poor parents are often caught in a bind of choosing between spending time with their children or working for the few dollars they earn to take care of them. It’s not a choice they should have to make. If we work for child care and better jobs for the poor – and for better health care too – then they might be able to exercise their responsibility more fully.

Should we take responsibility for family planning to stop fly-by-night baby-making? Yes, but the numbers have actually gone down: in 1970, there were 72 pregnancies per 1,000 for black females between the ages of 15 and 17, while in 2000, there were 30.9 pregnancies per 1,000. Should the poor stop killing each other? Of course, but that won’t be achieved solely by marches against homicide that both Mr. Cosby and I have led in Philadelphia. It also takes community policing – and more quality work won’t hurt.

Should the poor stay out of jail? Sure, but we can’t deny that society locks our children up for offenses that bring white kids a mere slap on the wrist. That doesn’t give us a license to misbehave; we shouldn’t wait until poverty is destroyed to act responsibly. But as we fight poverty we increase the likelihood that the vulnerable will be more responsible. (Although irresponsibility among intellectuals, comedians, leaders and preachers suggests the poor are often unfairly targeted while the sins of the rich are barely noticed).

Should the poor practice self-help? King said it’s “all right to say to a man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” If we’re going to hold poor people responsible, let’s give out more boots.

soundoff (98 Responses)
  1. Jim A

    I am a teacher, junior high, and I see a continuum of behaviors toward getting an education among my African-American students- some strive all they can, because they have total support from parents (note the plural). Others are already falling by the wayside into the uneducated morass of low or no wages caused by low or no skills. Those students are predominantly from single parent households. I will be blunt; a culture that encourages disdain for achievement and responsibility is a failed culture. My young black male students overwhelmingly have no idea of what being an adult male is really about.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:15 pm |
  2. DLS

    As a teacher in a poverty-ridden inner city school, I still believe that education is absolutely the key to changing the lives of all children, regardless of race. What I see in my school is appalling. The students, by and large, do not care to get an education. The parents do not care if their children are in school, let alone learning anything. The parents who do care are the ones who's children are going to be the ones getting to college and escaping the generational welfare.

    You can't tell me that throwing more money at schools is going to fix this problem. What needs to happen is the parents need to care. The kids need to care. They need to see that life beyond the projects is possible and attainable. They need to see that the teachers in the school aren't there as glorified babysitters.

    Students and parents have very little respect for the teachers. Students are still being passed on from one grade to another because the administration is tired of dealing with problem children and want them out of the school.

    It boils down to if the students showed up, cared, and did the homework, the students would have a much greater chance at success in school and life in general.

    We have one school in our district that is defying the odds. The students are predominantly black and on welfare. The school is churning out high performing students. Yet on paper, it's staggering the educational disparity between it and the top performing school in the district. What makes this school special? Parental involvement. Schools where parents are involved, regardless of funding do better.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:15 pm |
  3. Matthew

    Thank you professor Dyson for speaking out about the truth that surrounds us. Black youth do not want to go into the American Gulag. Let Bill Cosby spend a day as a young black man with an inadequate education, no job experience and perhaps a criminal record. Lets see how easily Mr Cosby would raise himself above the fray. Lets see him figure out how to approach an employer. How to find a job and how to actually get hired. Let him try to go to job interviews only to be turned away becaue of his record or just because the culture he is obviously part of is percieved as dangerious and antisocail. Then, lets just say Mr. Cosby is able to find employment. Then let him figure out how to get to work in a typical city where round trip bus or subway fare may cost him an hours wages. Let Mr. Cosby then find an apartment to rent where the rent is anywhere near affordable given his minimum wage job. And then, after having accomplished these miricles lets watch Mr. Cosby leave his ghetto apartment (where else could he live?) and make the treck to work every day to a humiliating devalued job and return home with almost nothing in his pocket.
    We are not acting loving toward our children! Subjecting them to this horror show and then preaching personel responsability is pathetic and hateful and is a big part of the problem. We are sending tax payers money around the world to help people in desperate situations (though not nearly as much as we should) and meanwhile we are incarcerationg our own young people at an unprecidentd rate. We should feel deep shame and we should use our resources to fix the problem The solutions are not obscure. Quality education, financial help and help with child care. Decent paying jobs (governmewnt supported if necessary), meaningfull skill training and follow up for those unlucky enough to be in prison. The foundamental premise should be that we love our children and are willing to use our our smarts and our money and our caring to bring them into a mainstream of happy, productive life.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:11 pm |
  4. Elizabeth

    Brilliant Tim....what a fresh perspective and one that I've never considred before.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:06 pm |
  5. Janine

    The FAFSA does not look at race. You can check whatever box you want, but the federal government is run by friends of Bush, and Bush does not favor people of any minority for any purpose whatsoever.

    You can get into college with a Pell grant if you are poor: black, white, native, Asian, take your pick. The Pell grants only apply to income.

    There are some diversity grants–but, people, they apply to white folk too. If you want to go to a historically black institution, just your race will get you in. If you are a male, then applying to a nursing school or other "female" profession will get you in.

    In fact, colleges are having to handicap the male student's ACT and SAT scores already (yes, white males) because they are being outperformed by females. There is too high a percentage of females on most college campuses compared to males.

    I do not think that Dyson is waiting for a white knight to save the black people. He is trying to get well-to-do black people like Cosby to quit blaming black people for their own failure to rise. Cosby (who has radically benefitted from the work of other blacks in the Civil Rights movement) and other people of color use this excuse to fund their own lavish lifestyles and turn their backs on other people from the circumstances they rose from.

    Cosby likes to pretend that he got where he is due to his own "specialness"–just like Clarence Thomas. It is really a form of egotism. There are plenty of middle class and well-to-do black people who have plenty of resources that they could use to help others–but they don't. They are "special" and don't have to help anyone. Dyson is asking that they use their resources to push for equity for everyone (and I do think it should be for everyone and not just "black brothers") rather than talk down to those who are suffering and tell them that if they worked harder, the world would open up to them.

    The world won't open up if they don't work hard, granted. People do have to work. But, they can work hard, and the world still well might not open up. If you haven't been there, you don't know this equation. I have, and it is true.

    July 27, 2008 at 3:05 pm |
  6. Jamaal

    I'm a dark skinned black male who's been degraded,antagonized and everything else because of it,mostly from lighter BLACK people! I can honestly say that i have NEVER had to deal with that with my WHITE counterparts. Coming from where I'm from where all you seen was drug addicts,dealers and harlots, isn't much anybody can tell me about what's going on we know what's going on(what are WE going to do about it!) I mean something as simple as the street it self has special treatment in the " better" part of town. On racism (oh yeah it exist!) and it probably won't go any where. It's not as obvious as it once was but it's there, even "McD's has a book that describes each RACE and what they symbolize and mean to the company (Ie: Whites=Power,Blacks,hispanics just pretty much answer to ever has the power!) "Control the MIND, let them have the body"! I will NOT conform. P&L

    July 27, 2008 at 3:00 pm |
  7. JD from New York

    Dr. Dyson,
    I have read many of your books and I applaud you effort to address the struggle of poor black folks in this country. I think many here misunderstood your points and rightfully so because I doubt they have conducted the kind of research as well as real life experience you have had to have that kind of understanding. I view your points differently from many here, because when you talk about social responsibility I think about leveling the playing field. People in this country do not know about black histories and yet they think they are in position to make educated assessments of our struggle. We have been playing in a field where everyone from the top all the way down to the referees is against us. If you go back to slavery, I think it fair to say that we were 100 runs behind before the game even started. A game that is obviously unfair to any objective person. They are calling foul balls home runs, while they are calling strikes for balls that are miles away from the strike zone when it is pertaining to black folks. How do you win a game in those conditions? We know we can’t win even if a few of us manage to hit a home run here and there. All we want is a fair game, in terms of social responsibility. No more and any less and I bet we will level the score no matter how long it will take. That scares a lot of folks. Keep up the good work Sir!

    July 27, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  8. ZenNonna

    fScotL Where I live (Tampa -New Tampa) When I hear loud music coming from a car or truck it is 99.999% of the time a white person.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  9. Mesheba Williams

    Blame hip hop, but ignore The Godfather, blame hip hop, but embrace Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,, ignore history, integration happened in the 1970's, make blanket statements, ignore reality. It must be nice to generalize, and ignore history. where is this free ride to college because I stupidly got student loans? What rappers, please name them, the specific song and specific line you are talking about. Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, must have been making up that they were unarmed and now dead or had a broom stick shoved up their butt. The mostly black and hispanic men that have been released from jail after years serving time for a crime they didn't commit, it must be nice to ignore reality and not LISTEN to 13% of the population or 43 million people, yeah they must be making it up

    July 27, 2008 at 2:49 pm |
  10. SMB

    Great article Mr. Dyson.
    Your views mixed with your experiences and insight are always on point and by me they are appreciated. If you are black in America I think it is safe to say that you have experienced racism in the school systems, community, criminal justice system and in your work environment but it always brings me back to this one question. Now that we know this NOW WHAT? I think we have stopped at the now what.

    We know that the playing field isn't level and when you look at how American began with the sweat and blood of Africans it never will be. So now that we know this NOW WHAT? Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and many others in the civil rights movement made great strides and made great sacrifices but the reality is they are no longer here to continue... Now that we know this NOW WHAT?

    We do have to take more responsibility for our well being because no one else is going to. History has taught us this. So while we have breath, which is the most precious thing any of us truly have, because without it, we're dead, what are we doing to get past the NOW WHAT? I have a few suggestions...

    Educate yourself so you can better educate your kids. While knowledge is powerful, it isn't powerful unless you put it into action. Because as a single black woman, raising three sons from the same father, I do know that when you change your mind you change your life and that begins with education and education is everywhere.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:46 pm |
  11. Teddy Duplessis

    Sp, it is just that simple. Dyson, undermines his own accomplishments by simply saying that he is a professor/author just due to the fact that he is not dark skin. His brother is a convicted murderer(not saying he wasnt set up)-but sometimes the younger brother and a person out of the military -will end up in trouble. Dyson, is blinded by his own emotions.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:45 pm |
  12. Samevelou Greene

    Teresa – you are sadly mistaken if you seriously believe that educational money is simply there for the taking by minorities. I myself am a female African-American (i.e., I fit into two categories of minorities), and yet I paid for my own undergraduate degree out of my pocket (and I am by no means wealthy or even middle class). Moreover, I am now almost $100,000 in debt with law school loans because the only thing I am awarded by filling out a FAFSA is fixed rate government loans. Lastly, please be reminded that minorities are also taxpayers, so the money SOME minorities receive from the government is not taken solely from taxes paid by whites.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:39 pm |
  13. Jenny

    I am a single parent and a minority. I have struggles everyday with my children. I did not graduate high school and I have to take on dead end jobs to make ends meet. their father does not help me financially and we have four children together ages ranging from 14 to 2 years old. I was in an abusive relationship for twelve years with this man. I could go on and on with my complaints of life and blame my growing up in the ghetto or because my mother was a drug addict and my father was not around as to why my life turned out to be what it is or why I became a statistic. The thruth is that I dont agree with that I also strongly believe in we choose our own destiny. We cant go on blaming society for our misfortune because we make the wrong choices in life. In my neighborhood people complain about how our children arent getting a good education in public schools and poor people dont get paid enough and so on and so on, but when its time to get out there and vote not even 7 out 10 go and vote, and that would be a start to being heard. We have to take a stand and take responsibilities for ourselves.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  14. Samevelou Greene

    Amen!

    July 27, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Amy

    Eddie: Your attack on Soledad O'Brien is unwarranted and inappropriate.

    I have no idea why you are sure that "sure that among blacks dark skin blacks have more Ph.D’s than light skin blacks as a percentage of their respective population." Though I do not know the relationship between skin tone and highest degree earned, I can say that at every institution I have attended or taught at, the school has looked very hard for qualified African American students to attend in a serious attempt to increase diversity. I have NEVER, in any of these discussions, heard anything about distinctions of skin tones within the African American community. Furthermore, many students are accepted to undergraduate and Ph.D. programs having never been interviewed in person, so I do not see how there could be a bias towards accepting black/African American students with lighter skin tones.

    One of the very problems with our racist society is that someone biracial like Obama is automatically classified as black by society because we seem to need to classify people as either black or white. His own evidence of this point is that he has as much trouble flagging down a cab in New York, as African American men do.

    Dr. Dyson makes some good points. Note I said these schools were looking for qualified applicants. If students coming from inner city schools received substandard educations (that is, the percentage who actually graduate), this would not prepare them to succeed at these schools and so they are not given a fair chance to compete for jobs that would bring them and their families out of poverty. So yes personal responsibility is important, but as Dr. Dyson alludes, providing a fair chance to compete is important as well.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:28 pm |
  16. DB

    @ Teresa

    Your friend can check whatever box she pleases on the FAFSA, but it will not make one bit of difference. The FAFSA is based on combined family income and number of children in the household in college. Financial Aid in this nation is need-based and color-blind, right or wrong. So, unless your friend can find a way to hide some income somewhere, the increase she is seeing in the Student Aid Reports for her children is based on the fact that she now has 3 children enrolled in college, not on the race she checked on the form.

    There are certainly numerous programs, mostly private, that target minority students for scholarships (and there should be), but those programs are all but a drop in the bucket compared to what the federal government invests in financial aid. How about we flip an age old argument on its side and tell you that your friend shouldn't have had so many kids if she couldn't support them. Would you agree with that argument? I doubt it. So then, why do we tell poor families, of any race, that they should not have kids if they cannot support them? College is a privilege, not a right, but the more people who go to college the better.

    College is expensive, but financial assistance is finite and reserved for those in our nation who need it most–the working poor. We all benefit from having an educated citizenry, so those of us in the upper and middle classes who can afford to invest in our children's education should. We do this so that those who are less fortunate can have access to the assistance they need to go to college and improve themselves and our society.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:17 pm |
  17. Josef

    Dyson.. this man is a real piece of work. I am so sad for all of the young minds he has poisoned with his brand of racism. Until people like Dyson are ushered out of the conversation we will be creating legions of haters and racists skeptical of every white person they meet.

    July 27, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  18. Ralph Moerschbacher

    Surely black Americans have struggled. I have a part minority granddaughter. I would about the challenges she will face. Everyone has their own personal struggles. There is another struggle that I and so many older Americans face, that of age discrimination. This is a form of discrimination that most ignore or dismiss as non-existent. Our own federal government of one of the biggest problems. As a 22 year veteran of the United States Air Force, and a Vietnam veteran, I am to old (58) to apply to be a janitor at a federal prison. Men and women over 37 1/2 years of age are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, but cannot apply to protect own own borders as a border patrol agent because of their age. Discrimination based on race, ethnic values, age or any other form is wrong and until we stand up and wipe it out, it will continue. How do we do that is the great question. As for me, as a law enforcement officer in Pennsylvania, if you have an emergency and I come to your home, you aren't going to ask me my age. Sincerely; Ralph Moerschbacher, Captain, USAF Retired Vietnam veteran

    July 27, 2008 at 2:10 pm |
  19. East African

    I think black americans need to stop blaming others for their failure. blame yourself first for everything, then you can blame others. if the system is set to fail you then work arround the system. Be smart think outside the box. Nobuddy is forcing you to sell drags on your corner to your owne people. Think big....
    thankns

    July 27, 2008 at 1:54 pm |
  20. Eric

    Melissa -

    Why do you have to depend on your parents to go to school? My parents said they couldn't afford to send me to college, so I did it myself. I paid my own way by getting student loans, grants and working full time in order to pay my tuition. Why does your brother have to go to a private college? I ended up going to a state school where the tuition was lower and still received a good education.

    Also, why do parents think they have to start saving/paying for school once their children graduate high school? My wife and I have set aside money in a 529 plan so that our 3 kids will have college paid for when the time comes for them to go. Our 6-year-old and 4-year old already have college paid for, and it wasn't as painful as it would seem. It just takes good money management from the time your child is born. It has nothing to do with opportunites, race, or economic status. Just about anyone should be able to go to college if they really want to.

    July 27, 2008 at 1:53 pm |
  21. jeff

    (i am paraphrasing the economist magazine)
    if businesses could pay black men 78 cents on the dollar instead of white men, there would be a near zero unemployment rate for
    black men.
    this is bunk.

    your article is compelling; this is just one FACT that i want to point out.

    July 27, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  22. dave

    Until so many Black people quit blaming present whites for past problems, little individual economic progress will be made. Most negative things that happen to people are the result of their own doing. Keep that in focus.

    July 27, 2008 at 1:23 pm |
  23. Tamra

    ***To Krystle ***

    Don't give up. Your fiance' may have to start his own business, like a car detailing, or a service of some sort. Many go this route and don't even have social security numbers. There are small business loans or grants for some ex-cons even. God bless.

    July 25, 2008 at 1:06 am |
  24. Tamra

    Further, on the skin icolor issue, one must delve into history, as President Thomas Jefferson (I believe -one drop African blood makes the product black) created the ingenious but negative idea of race as it relates to skin color. No other nation in the world classifies people of their own region in this way. America has a problem with race, and maybe South Africa because of the belief in “skin color " classification instead of nationality. Europeans are Europeans, Asians are from Asia. Why aren’t Americans from America?

    July 25, 2008 at 1:00 am |
  25. Jim

    Mr. Dyson,

    Please explain to me how this systematic racism caused the current CNN.com front page story where a black man wounded three college students. If you can reasonably explain to me why I and others of my race caused this then I will give the rest of what you say credence.

    July 25, 2008 at 12:26 am |
  26. Tamra

    I think the coverage Soledad did was surficial but glad at least some of the most threatening factors were uncovered. My light skinned brothers, in a predominately white area, were wrongly identified by a little white boy on a school bus, as carrying a gun. The little boy told a police officer at the school and the officer just took the word from the boy and searched my brothers in front of the entire school. My brothers are preppy and light skinned, and are Christians. It is just something that constantly happens to us black people. The principal apologized, but the damage was done. It is not only true of dark skinned, but light skinned blacks as well, that we all are targeted. It is frustrating that when you explain stories like these to non-blacks, especially whites, they act like racism, discrimination, and hatred are still not a part of America, but it is. I wish they could understand us, because we've spent an eternity trying to understand them and fit in and assimilate into white America just to progress to the heights they have made on the free labor black people gave over 400 years due to slavery. White people got a head start and blacks are still struggling, reason we need reparations.

    July 25, 2008 at 12:21 am |
  27. Rubby G, AZ

    this special had me in tears. it is sad that often African Americans as a whole down grade themselves. you hear "oh i can't get a job because am black" yes it might be true but have you tried upgrading yourself so that others see a different person?
    We as a people have been labeled with the "gang bangers, robbers, murderers and etc" so we just stick to those stereotypes and that is not helping.
    Also it is sad that within the black community a dark-skinned black person is looked down upon and a light-skinned black person gets praised...so technically the odds are already against a dark skinned black person!....
    We cant just change the world...we have to start from within us first

    July 25, 2008 at 12:04 am |
  28. Melissa

    @ Phil and Teresa
    As a black third generation college graduate I must have missed the "advantages for the blacks and minorities in trying to pay for college". I took out student loans the same as my parents, and my grandmother.
    "Minorities: the money is there for the taking for your college education.
    There is NO excuse for you not to go to college."
    Are you serious? I had to take a 2 year hiatus from college because my parents could only finance one child in college at a time. Since my older sister is 2 years older than I, I had to wait. I received no extra financial aid or special treatment because I am black. As I write this my parents, whom are both graduates of an ivy league college and graduate school, are trying to figure out the $30,000 that is needed to send my younger brother to a private college. This is after academic scholarships.

    Secondly I would like to address the following comment. "You are victim in todays world only if you want to be." I guess this should be applied to women who "let" themselves be paid 75 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. Just as sexism still exists racism does as well. For use all white, black, whatever we will not move forward as a society if we at the minimum do not acknowledge that racism exist.

    July 24, 2008 at 11:58 pm |
  29. daprofesa

    My comment is goes toward to the political labeling we (black folks) tend to get or be given. We are not "African American" people, we are "black people" just as the program's label. i white person can be born in South Africa and then live in America. Does that make then African American? If a black person is born in China or Japan and then live in America, does that make them a Chinese or Japanses American. It is just like Smokey said " black is our core"

    July 24, 2008 at 11:32 pm |
  30. Krystle

    I am engaged to a black man who was raised in an unhealthy environment, who was expose to family members hooked on drugs other family members selling drugs, gang involvement and basically raised in ghetto poverty. Thus, he has a felony on his name and now he has realized that he wants a better life, but with that felony he is rejected by basically every career path he desires. What is a black man suppose to do when they want to be something in life, but cannot because of past mistakes? He does have a job that pays well, but he wants a career. He is trying to become a fireman, but the felony prohibits that . I am afraid that he will soon give up and go back to his old ways because no one is willing to give him the chance to become a positive contributor to his community.

    July 24, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
  31. Jo Anne Cummings

    Are there no examples of white brothers where one chose the "wrong" path? I think there might be...............

    July 24, 2008 at 11:17 pm |
  32. drussellaz

    After watching Dr. Dyson's segment about the possible correlation between the shades of our skin i.e. the lighter skin the more opportunities one has to future success. I find it interesting that of the black men who were not entertainers or radio commentators interviewed for this special were all considered to be light skin. Can this be due bias of the producers of this story?

    July 24, 2008 at 11:00 pm |
  33. Renee

    This country has never totally embraced its darker hued brothers/sisters and insisted upon superiority in order to justify the slavery institution. Even though the country was founded on the premise of the free and the brave. Nonetheless, we believed in the American dream, even when we were thrown out with the bath water. Please remember that the majority of buyers of hip hop music are white people. Please remember that that criminal behavior is statistically about even in the races, but police focus more deeply on its darker hued citizens.

    America streets are paved in gold, but its full of potholes, if you don't believe me please ask a young African American, Hispanic, Native American or anyone entrenched in poverty.

    July 24, 2008 at 9:55 pm |
  34. Mike

    I agree with some of the readers/bloggers here who point out a potential bias in police forces around the country toward the suspicion of black males regarding potential crimes. All suspects should certainly be seen in the same light. Unfortunately, and all too often, police officers naturally rely on their experience and past history, which so many times lead them to suspect wrongdoing in the appropriate places.
    The problem with the youth in the country (black and white) is there is no SHAME. I remember a day when it was shameful to be pregnant and not married.
    But let me bring up another entirely different situation in two words: New Orleans. I didn't say Katrina, I said New Orleans. Sorry folks, that was a crime-infested hole long before Katrina. What is the demographic data on the New Orleans police force? Likely over 70%. Criminals of all colors should be treated as such and locked up. Personal responsibility is the key concept that has never sunk in for so many communities like New Orleans. Reliance on federal handout programs leads to dependency, dependency to poverty. Federal programs were not conceived as careers – only a helping hand to those who need it until they can get back on their feet.
    How many unwed mothers are there in New Orleans? Why are they unwed? Surely not because the black men who knocked them up are intimidated by them! That's absurd! Single mothers have baby after baby, not for love or want for family – for the federal check they receive for every one they have! Good Lord, my mother is an elementary school teacher in Georgia and has kids in her class talking about getting themselves a baby. Unbelievable.
    Put a moratorium on how many babies will be covered under welfare per mother. "As of September, if you have 2 already and aren't actively pregnant, we're not paying for any more." Certainly 9 months from September we'd have a huge baby boom, but you can bet the baby train would come to a halt.
    I see no other way to stop it.

    July 24, 2008 at 9:54 pm |
  35. Teresa

    @Scot: I agree with you 100%.

    @Phil: I am white and my friend is. After seeing all the advantages for the blacks and minorities in trying to pay for college, my friend is now checking the African- American box on the FAFSA and other forms in order to not lose her house to pay for their college education. At this juncture, her family is $100,000 in the hole trying to keep up payments for college. Three kids is $$$$$$$.

    Minorities: the money is there for the taking for your college education.
    There is NO excuse for you not to go to college. As Phil said: " I was very pleased how easy it is for any minority to get a good education at the expense of the taxpayers"

    July 24, 2008 at 8:48 pm |
  36. Fan of CNN

    What about the videos, the rap. I sit with my children and try to watch music videos on T.V. and can't. RAP music about Killing Police, Robbing stores and harming women. Gangster RAP. Who is promoting this and making money? Who is getting rich. What message is this stuff sending. I see it EVERY day, the gangster want to be's ( White and Black) Most of the upcoming youth want to be like the folks on the videos, a gangster or a pop star/gangster. I dare you to listen to the lyrics and not just the beat.

    July 24, 2008 at 8:37 pm |
  37. Phil Bowman

    The black male needs to wake up. You are victim in todays world only if you want to be. I just went with my daughter to college registration. I was very pleased how easy it is for any minority to get a good education at the expense of the taxpayers. Don't get me wrong, I too would rather pay for the education than a prison term.The black male must take control and clean up their own house. I saw 50 to 1 black female college students to black males at the recent college day! Where were you? After this trip I no longer feel that I owe any color anything other than friendship and respect. This white anglo saxon male has come full circle thanks to Dr. King and others. I ask you My black brothers will you do the same and help yourself out of prision?

    July 24, 2008 at 8:34 pm |
  38. Lou

    The only reason that Dyson is finally actually talking about personal responsibility is because Obama brought it up and is being hailed for it. Before Obama, Dyson was (and still is) the biggest blamer of the so-called system for the woes of black people. Read his work, no personal responsibilty is ever mentioned pre-Obama.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:56 pm |
  39. Matt

    Albert @ 6:14, The sooner the 'black' community gets off this victim mentality – the quicker they will get out of the predicament that they are stuck in.

    I have lived in 3 cities with significant black populations and you can pretty much chart out a 100% correlation between the black concentration in a given locality and the crime rate there.

    Why? Why should that be. You may point out that black communities tend to be poorer. But are you inferring then that poor people are criminally inclined? What does poverty have to do with homicides and drug dealing?

    And I also disagree with the 'lack of low end employment' statement. If 25 million illegal immigrants can find a way of earning their livelihood as well sending money home, all the while climbing the social ladder – sans any welfare handouts and living in the shadows, it is an utterly farcical argument to claim that native born citizens cannot take on the same job given all the advantages that they have compared with that poor illegal immigrant.

    Sorry, that argument doesnt cut it.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  40. Gil

    Well said Albert! It is the blatant double standard that is so maddening and the uneven ability "to pay ones debt" to society. We seem to never be able to pay enough or to rise above any previous indiscretion, regardless of how innocuous or far in our past it occurred.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:34 pm |
  41. Eddie

    The story of these two brothers as presented by Soledad O' Brien does not make any sense. I know as a journalist she has to report what idiots say and what reasonable people say. What I mean is that the light skin black man with a Ph.D from Princeton still has a brain captured by whites and left in slavery and plantation days of the past. He has a total disconnect with reality.

    The darker skin Black man, his brother, though without a princeton Ph.D. was capable of real analysis than a Ph.D. He said that he made wrong choices and so ended up in prison to serve many years, and he did not attribute his fate to his skin as his foolish light skin brother. These light skin black men in America, some of them, arose anger because they are foolish. Many of them still carry Jim Crow and slavery in their brain. It is true that in Slavery and Jim Crow days that slave masters after making babies with their servants or slaves deny them to suffer in their shadows. These black men later during slavery and Jim Crow felt they looked more like the white men who refused them as fathers, and because they were the oppressors took joy that they were like them. That solely was their pride, a fool's pride.

    This Ph.D holder had forgotten as far back as a hundred years ago that dark skin black men, self confident in themselves had college education. Also I am sure that among blacks dark skin blacks have more Ph.D's than light skin blacks as a percentage of their respective population.

    His younger brother did not like what he said, I could see that in his twinkling eyes. The light skin guy saw the moment as a time to tell his very brother that he was better than him because he was light skin. Maybe Soledad like his goofy reason for his success because she is mixed too; thereby feeling that moment was redemptive. But he was just goofy and idiotic. Many dark skin black men have made their marks in this nation than light skin ones anyway. Think Martin Luther King, Malcolm X etc. They were more charismatic than many goofy light skin blacks whose brains are for ever locked up in the plantation days.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:29 pm |
  42. Scot

    I read your commentary on CNN.COM and one part struck me:

    "There is a vicious prison system that hungers for young black and brown bodies. The more young black and brown folk are thrown in jail, the more cells are built, and the more money made. It has been well documented that we spend far more money on penitentiaries than university education for poor black and brown males. During the 1980s and 1990s, state spending for corrections grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education."

    I have to disagree with you about how the government spends more money on prisons than for the black and brown males for education. Would it also be true that they spend more money on prisons than they do for white males? Doesn't the black community have NAACP??? I sure cannot find a NAAWP!!

    I don't have a PhD. I don't even have a BA. But I do have knowledge. I learn by watching and studying people. My 4 years in the Marine Corps, I studied people from all over the world. I still study people even though I have been out of the Corps for 20+ years. I qualify for MENSA. I think that will speak for itself.

    What I have observed is this:
    When I hear a loud car stereo, it's 99% chance, it's a black person. At work, the black/brown people are not dressed for success, but rather dressed to play basketball. When you talk to a black person one on one, you can have an intelligent conversation. However, when they are around their friends, you can't understand a single thing they say.

    They feel they are due respect, even though they have not earned it. I don't respect you unless you have earned it. At the same time, I don't dis-respect you, unless you have earned it.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  43. Bill

    Race is not the issue for people in prisons. If you break the law, go to jail. Regardless of color or nation origin, obey the law, and stay out of jail. Case closed.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  44. Matthew

    We can't be demised by self hatred or being influenced by social and political policy. One being that a biracial man is the exception in the black community. I went to school with my brother who is not biracial, but a lighter dark complexion. Each of us were called derogative things and experienced in our first experience of the world in preschool and first grade what it means to be black in America. As we got older into middle school it seemed that everything the white students would call us was divided among negros in the school who shared the same burden. So out of strife the names were called amongst our own kind by our own kind. White teachers would tell the "troubled" black students to drop out, your 16 it is legal. The path for a white student was less difficult with opportunities that waited on them at any time they were ready. Black students were held back in grades and ultimately life. I don't take this talk lightly as the black community is not waiting for an audience, but a shift in direction and a partaking in action towards our own independence. Not just for our immediate now, but generation to generation in a society built on white supremecy and not equality.

    July 24, 2008 at 6:54 pm |
  45. Anthony

    Dr. Dyson:

    I appreciate your perspective but I disagree with you, and in fact believe Bill Cosby has a more functional perspective. There are a wide range of mechanisms in the black culture that continue to propogate the very values and behaviors that lead these young men to crime, and you and others should take a stronger stance against these. Hip-hop celebrating/romanticizing violence, drug use, materialism, etc. does absolutely nothing but harm, and the harm is done to one's own self and culture. It's certainly easy and self-serving to blame others for misfortune, but the truly wise person looks within. And while I'm sorry your brother is in prison, there are appeals that can be made if the evidence warrants. Occam's Razor would suggest, however, that while you can't believe your brother would have done such a thing (most family members don't), it is in fact a very plausible and probably correct explanation.

    July 24, 2008 at 6:37 pm |
  46. GF, Los Angeles

    Oh my goodness there are so many boots out there only people aren't taking advantage of them. Case in point the kid who re-registered for school and then dropped out again in last night's documentary. He had the opportunity to get a free education and if he took it seriously (personal responsibility) he might've gotten a scholarship for his grades and moved on to college. Instead for whatever reason he dropped out and turned himself into a statistic. We're not living in some 3rd world country where the opportunities are few and far between.

    July 24, 2008 at 6:30 pm |
  47. Shenita Battle

    The number of black men who are now being set free after years of spending time in jail for crimes they didnt commit is un-nerving. My brother is serving a life sentence for a crime he didnt commit. The only crime was we couldnt find a better lawyer. They looked at my brother as if he was gulity before the trial even started. The only crime my brother has ever been convicted of was parking tickets.

    July 24, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  48. Albert Zaza

    Some of you are missing Prof. Dyson's message. The races (Black & White) are both committing crime, but most white are less likely to be incarcerated due to favoritism from white cops- simple. The argument is not that when a black man commits crime he shouldn’t spend the time, but the same should be for the white men who are most likely let off the hook by the majority white police who think less of them as criminal.

    So RB and Mr. Critical Reader, please read critically before responding to the learn professor.

    July 24, 2008 at 6:14 pm |
  49. JC- Los Angeles

    Although I applaud your choices while condoning those of your convicted felon brother, I must disagree with you on your comment:

    "in our economy where low-skilled work is all but gone, all the right behavior in the world won't create better jobs for the poor; And personal responsibility can't lower the unemployment rate."

    Statements like these help shine a bright light on root causes of problems; a mere statement like this is alarming.

    If one doesn't practice the right behavior or personal responsibility, then the results will most certainly be grim.

    I would suggest that all communities practice right behavior and personal responsibility; once people are held to these standards, you won't have to worry about jobs, unemployment or minimum wage.

    July 24, 2008 at 5:53 pm |
  50. Tim

    Your arguments are intelligent and compelling, but in my opinion they ignore one central reality. There is NEVER going to be a social awakening, a governmental change in policy, a ground roots revolution, or anything else that is going to add even on scintilla to what an individual must do to improve his or her own situation. Your article is laced with the idea that we need both personal responsbility, and social responsibility. When are we going to understand that there will never be any social responsbility to help the individual. The individual and the individual alone must take control of his own destiny, ignore any suggestions that some outside force will come along and make his or her journey easier, and proceed with the courage, and single-minded purpose - almost like a warrior - to work his or her own way through to whatever goals and achievements that they will ultimately realize.

    How many people have died waiting for this outside force to come along and liberate us from this personal responsibility.

    I understand something as a black male, this is a race, like a 5k run. Noone cares if I am out of shape to finish the race, noone cares if my hamstring locks up, noone cares that I might slip and fall over something the crowd throws onto the track. If I get any unfair advantage, then the other people in the race will get angry, and then try to bump me off of the track, because they feel that the race is just as hard for them as it is for me. Maybe I will get a tail wind that will help push me across the finish line, maybe there will be a head wind that makes my race harder, but ultimately it is my calf muscles, the strucutre of the bones in my legs, the own endurace or lack thereof, which will determine how I actually finish. The good news is that to win, I don't have to finish first. I just have to cross the finish line in one piece.

    July 24, 2008 at 5:49 pm |
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